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As we begin to consider what it means to see clearly, as we explore together how a spiritual practice of seeing clearly might draw us closer to God, enrich our lives, and help us through these tough times, I want to invite you to participate in a sensory exercise.
You don’t have to do this, of course, and I hope it goes without saying that I won’t think any less of you if you don’t. But I hope you will at least consider it, and then try it for at least a few minutes.
Are you ready? Are you willing?
If you’re wearing glasses, I encourage you to take them off. Go ahead, you can do it right now.
Now, keep your eyes open and have a look around. Consider how things look to you. Consider how it feels to be in this space, listening to me, in the midst of a lot of people, without being able to see me or them or much of anything as well as you’d like. If you can, leave your glasses off and try to adjust to this level of seeing and not seeing.
Now if you’re wearing contact lenses, like me, or if your vision is clear without corrective lenses, I invite you to close your eyes and leave them closed. The effect is not the same, and I know some of you already prefer to listen to me with your eyes closed (at least that’s what you tell me you’re doing!), but I hope this experience will feel a little different.
Is everyone alright? How are you feeling?
Please don’t hesitate to open your eyes or put your glasses back on if you begin to feel uncomfortable. I apologize for being unable to share this experience with you; I need to keep my eyes open and my contacts in.
Okay, here we go.
Well, actually, before we really dive in, before we get too distracted by what may feel a little like a gimmick, let’s concede that the story of Jesus healing the man born blind is not primarily about literal seeing. As with most stories in our scriptures, there are layers upon layers of meaning here, some of them depending on who we are and what we bring to the story.
Let’s consider that Jesus’ healing of the man born blind is a sign, an action that points to something beyond itself. In the story, blindness has less to do with eyesight than the inability to see and understand. And then there’s blindness as a lack of faith, blindness as a willful refusal to see things as they are, and blindness as the unwillingness to open one’s eyes to new possibilities, another way of being or a different way of doing things.
The story is worth telling and re-telling not so much for the amazing things Jesus can do with dirt and spit, but because it upends our expectations about who can see and what is worth seeing.
Hello!!!!, the beggar says to the hardline religious leaders. Hello? This man has given me sight, and you can’t see past the day and the hour? I was blind and now I see! Don’t you get it? Can’t you see? Something amazing has just happened!
But they don’t see. They can’t see what is right in front of them. They won’t see what is possible.
(Speaking of seeing, how are you doing out there? Is everyone okay? How do things look?)
Okay, let’s get back to our story, to the very first line of the story, which may be the most important one of all:
As Jesus walked along, it says, he saw a man who had been blind since birth.
Did you catch that? Jesus saw him. Day after day, hour after hour, people had walked right by the blind man without really seeing him. Oh, they might have had some vague awareness of the beggar who sat near the pool of Siloam. But they didn’t actually see him, they must have never really looked at him, because after he is healed, after he is up and walking around like anyone else, they don’t even recognize him. They can’t believe he’s the same guy because they’d never really seen him before—but neither can they imagine him as different than he was. They can’t believe someone born blind could be given sight because they’ve never seen that happen before. They are blind to him and to what is happening.
What about us? Who are the people we don’t see? Who is all but invisible to us?
The homeless? The poor? The undocumented? How about people of different races and religions? People with different political views?
And who are the people we refuse to see for who they truly are? Who are the people whose healing and transformation makes us uneasy?
Transgender folks? Differently abled folks seeking equal access? The poor and sick seeking health insurance?
Jesus’ own disciples fail to see the blind man as a beloved child of God; they treat him as no more than a theological object lesson, a victim of sin, a sign of guilt and judgment.
But Jesus sees the man in all his brokenness and need. Jesus loves him. Jesus heals him. And then after the man has been transformed, after he runs smack into an unwelcoming, unseeing world—his clueless neighbors, his confused and frightened parents, the stubborn narrow-mindedness and nearsightedness of the devout religious leaders—after he is harassed, condemned, and rejected, Jesus is still there. Jesus seeks him out—to validate him, to let the man know that he is not alone, to reveal himself more fully as God’s own, to give the man an opportunity to confess all that he sees.
The Pharisees, meanwhile, are concerned about the rules; in a scary world, they are doing all they can to hang onto what little power they have. They are not bad people; they are simply blind to what they don’t know. They live in a binary world: black-white, right-wrong, Republican-Democrat, male-female, gay-straight, private health care or socialized medicine, seeing-blind, followers of their interpretation of scripture or sinners subject to judgment and rejection.
So determined are they to get to the bottom of this outrage—a healing performed on the sabbath—that they cannot see the miracle of life and love standing right in front of them. So fixated are they on sinner or sabbath-keeper that they do not see that Jesus is from God; they fail to recognize his fulfillment of the greatest commandments, love of God and neighbor. So desperate are they to protect their power that they are blind to the saving power of Jesus. So devoted are they to the old ways that they cannot see the new thing God is doing in their midst.
Meantime, I can’t help thinking of the poor formerly blind man. His neighbors are afraid of him, his parents don’t know what to do with him, the religious leaders are all but torturing him, and all he wants to do is look at stuff—shiny things, red things, blue things, a thousand different faces, each one different, every one beautiful. All he wants to do is live into the fullness of his new identity; now that he can see, all he wants is to be seen for who he is.
In our day and time, life can get harder, not easier, for transgender folks who begin to look and sound different than they did when they were not fully themselves. In our politics and place, undocumented persons and even some legal immigrants are canceling food stamps and giving up trips to the food bank, the doctor, work, and school because they are afraid of being seen and deported. Some of these forced-to-be-invisible people are now afraid to report crimes committed against them, including domestic violence.
Scientific studies of formerly blind persons tell us that seeing is a complex process. To see clearly and fully, with depth and understanding, takes time and practice, patience and persistence, determination and faith. Some newly-sighted patients are overwhelmed and long for the comfort of their former, unsighted selves.
In our story, the formerly blind man is forced by judgment and rejection to come quickly into his own. “It’s me,” he keeps saying. “I am the man. I once was blind, but now I see.” And the more he can see, the more he knows of Jesus. And the more he knows of God’s love, the more he becomes who he was created to be.
I invite you now to open your eyes, to put on your glasses, and open your hearts.
Jesus sees you—for who you are and all you can be. Jesus invites you to see how deeply you are loved. He invites you to look around you and see, truly see, all these other beloved children of God. He invites you to see the God who loves you with an everlasting Jesus invites us all to abundant life, to see and claim possibilities, community, hope, and healing.
And now let us go out into the world to look at stuff, that we might see every person who is here, every beloved one in need of love and affirmation. Let us look and see and love. Let us look and see and praise. Let us look and see and affirm. And let us work in joy for what we cannot yet see.